The Feast of Passover was God’s appointed way for the people of Israel to celebrate their miraculous escape from Egypt (Exod 12:14,24). The name of the feast recalled God’s act of ‘passing over’ the houses of the Israelites while killing the firstborn of the Egyptians (Exod 12:27). However, God withheld judgment from the Israelite households only when he saw the blood of the sacrificial animal around the front door. The blood was a sign that an innocent life had been taken in place of the one under judgment (Exod 12:5,7,12-13,21-23; cf. Lev 17:11; see BLOOD).

Regulations and practices

The month of the Passover became the first month of the Jewish religious year (Exod 12:2). (This was the season of spring in Israel and corresponds with March-April on our calendar.) Late in the afternoon of the fourteenth day, each household killed a lamb, which the people ate in a sacrificial meal that night. This was now the beginning of the fifteenth day according to Israelite reckoning, for they considered sunset to mark the end of one day and the beginning of the next (Exod 12:6,8). Each Passover meal was a re-enactment of the first Passover meal, when people prepared and ate it in haste, dressed ready for their departure in the morning (Exod 12:11,25-27). They did not cut up the animal and boil it, but roasted it whole over an open fire. They made their bread without yeast (leaven), to save time waiting for the dough to rise.

The entire meal was deliberately kept simple, to keep the people from any feeling of self-glory. They were to burn the leftovers, and so prevent any defilement of the solemn occasion through the meat’s spoiling or the people’s keeping portions as sacred charms (Exod 12:8-10). Following the Passover, and joined to it, was the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. The two were considered one festival (Deut 16:1-8; Mark 14:1). Having removed leaven from their houses before preparing the Passover, the people kept their houses free of leaven for the week after the Passover (Exod 12:14-20). This reminded them that, having been saved through the Passover, they had fled from Egypt hastily, cooking unleavened bread as they travelled (Exod 12:33-34,39). (Concerning the offerings made at the Feast of Unleavened Bread see FEASTS.) Once the Israelites arrived in Canaan, they were to celebrate the Passover only at the central place of worship. At first this was the tabernacle, and later the temple (Deut 16:5-6; Josh 5:10-11; 2 Chron 8:12- 13; 30:1; 35:1; Luke 2:41; John 2:13; 11:55). All adult male Israelites had to attend the Passover celebration (Exod 23:14,17), and so could foreigners, provided they had accepted circumcision and so become part of the covenant people (Exod 12:43-49). There were special provisions for those Israelites who were unable to attend because of unavoidable circumstances (Num 9:6-13; cf. 2 Chron 30:17-20). The reforms that became necessary at various times in Israel’s later history show that people had frequently neglected or misused the Passover (2 Chron 30:5; 35:16-18).

Jesus’ last Passover

By the time of Jesus, the Passover had developed into a set form with a number of added rituals. Although people killed the lamb at the temple, they ate the meal privately with friends and relatives (Luke 22:8-13). Among the additions to the meal was a cup of wine, for which the head of the household offered a prayer of thanks (or blessing; 1 Cor 10:16), and which he passed around among the participants, both before and after the eating of unleavened bread (Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:15-20). Singing also became part of the celebration, the participants singing a collection of psalms known as the Hallel (Psalms 113-118). They usually sang the first two psalms before eating the lamb, the other psalms after (Mark 14:26). It appears that on the occasion of Jesus’ last Passover, he and his disciples ate the meal a day earlier than the official time, and probably without a lamb (Luke 22:15; John 13:1). If this was so, the reason was probably that Jesus knew that he himself was now the Passover lamb. On the next day he would lay down his life at the same time as the animals were being killed in preparation for the meal that was to follow that night (John 18:28; 19:14,31,42). Jesus’ death on the cross was the great act of redemption of which the Israelite Passover was but a picture (cf. Exod 12:5 with 1 Peter 1:18-19; cf. Exod 12:46 with John 19:36; cf. Exod 12:21,27 with 1 Cor 5:7). Once Jesus had died, the Passover was of no further use. It was replaced by a new remembrance ceremony, the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:17-30; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:23-26; see LORD’S SUPPER). Nevertheless, the New Testament refers to the requirements of the Passover to provide a lesson for Christians. Just as the Passover festival meant that Israelites removed leaven from their houses, so the sacrifice of Jesus Christ means that Christians should remove sin from their lives (1 Cor 5:7-8; see LEAVEN).

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